They do things differently in Sussex. When I was a small child, bonfire night meant a family party in the back garden with silver fountains, Catherine wheels, the occasional rocket and sparklers held tightly in gloved hands. Yorkshire parkin, perhaps, and potatoes wrapped in silver foil, cooked in the embers.
More recently, bonfire nights have been large organised events held at the children's schools, or in the glebe field of the nearby village church. Big bonfires with spectacular fireworks and the chance to catch up with friends and acquaintances, if you can find them in the flickering light.
So when I was invited to a big display in a nearby village the weekend before last, I was expecting the usual jolly but civilised affair. We parked on the far side of the busy A road that bypasses the village and walked through the narrow streets lined with tumbledown houses and cottages, wondering if we could gatecrash the parties that seemed to be happening behind every lighted window and, if so, which one we would most like to join? The high street was a heaving mass of warmly wrapped bodies as people lined the route ten deep. We found a vantage point and minutes later the procession exploded into view.
Scores of people, dressed in bizarre and macabre costumes, with blackened faces, paraded along the street, carrying flares, letting off firecrackers, beating on drums. A primative and tribal ritual that has been carried out annually in this village ever since the gunpowder plot. There was, apparently, strong anti-Catholic feeling in this part of the world and there are a number of bonfire societies which plan this event annually. Secret societies where membership is passed on from generation to generation.
The procession retraced its steps to a large field on the outskirts of the village, the crowd following behind. The bonfire was lit, the largest and fiercest bonfire I have ever seen, forcing the crowd back with the intense heat it generated. Then the fireworks started and the sky exploded with light and colour, at one point a tree set alight by a maverick firework. I snuggled closer to The Man in the Woolly Jumper (previously known as The Man in the Pink Shirt), who has come back into my life, as, somewhat stunned, we retraced our steps to the car and the 21st century.